Photographer/Artist Michael Alan Ross on what it’s like to shoot cars (Bonneville Salt Flats in particular), stars, and still keep a sense of humor – all while staying on top of his game. We’re highlighting his hot rod shots in this post, but we’ll be back to visit more of his epic portfolio.
– michael alan ross
About Michael Alan Ross:
I’ve been a shooter since the ’90s in NYC. I helped several Ford and Wilhelmina models market themselves while creating images for their portfolios and comp cards.
I also shot still life for designers such as Rochas of Paris and Anna Sui. It was a full concentration on detail work but being stuck inside all day was not my favorite thing. I would always have to break and take a walk outside. Every day seemed like January 3rd. I was in a black hole and needed to find daylight and a touch of reality.
So how did you overcome those black holes and find that daylight and reality?
Just by being outside, taking in the air, the people on the street, the vibe of NYC. It would bring me back to life so I could go back into my dark set and continue the shoot.
I was working with an assistant one day who had never worked with me. At around 3:00 I said, OK time to move. She was, at first, puzzled that I wanted her to stop and take a walk with me. By the the time we got back after stopping for coffee and something sweet, she said “I really like your work ethic.” You have to make it FUN, no matter what you do.
Your dad handed you a camera at the tender age of nine, can you tell me about that?
My parents nurtured creativity. My grandfather worked for the Long Island railroad as a signal man but he was a true camera buff. My father passed the baton. I’m forever grateful.
They also encouraged music in the house at all times. As a result, I’ve been a professional musician and a professional photographer.
You’ve said, “You have to find that feeling in the car.” Can you elaborate on this?
Well, I guess what I’m always looking for is the soul of the car. I approach cars like people. They are an extension of an individual, a designer. Each designer has a vision of what that car’s soul is. It’s my job to find it and bring it to the surface.
The most memorable car or event that you’ve shot recently?
I’ve been working on a book project for the past 2 years on musicians that are gear heads. It’s a collaboration with both Tom Cotter and Ken Gross. I’ve had the opportunity to photograph everyone from Billy Joel to Arlo Guthrie. I’ve been shooting their cars or motorcycle collections as well as having the opportunity to create environmental portraits of them. It’s been a blast!! I can’t wait to share the images. The book will be out in September published by Motorbooks simply titled “Rockin’ Rollers”. It will be a great Christmas gift for 2012!!!
As you see it, what qualities does a good photographer possess?
A good shooter has to not only have an eye, but a thorough understanding of what his subject is. He or she needs to bring their vision to the subject every time. They need to not be afraid to push the envelope. I love images that make me stop and think. Not about “how did they do that?” but an image that grabs me and makes me put down my coffee, stop walking, talking and really capture me!
You have some stellar shots here of the Bonneville Salt Flats. What’s The Salts like, and what are the challenges of doing shoots there?
Bonneville is my favorite location for many reasons, but most of all for the people there. The place itself offers an amazing setting to shoot anything, not just cars or bikes. My first experience was like stepping onto the face of the moon while entering into the coolest exclusive car club out there. You literally lose track of time and space, sense of direction. The greatest challenge is the salt itself. It is insidious, gets everywhere!! Your equipment takes a beating as well as you. The wind can be brutal.
The sun’s rays reflect everywhere. Hydration is the greatest challenge. I have to get off the salt occasionally. A few times I came very close to losing it out there. I remember one time having to return to my hotel room, closing all the curtains, cranking the AC and standing in a cold shower while guzzling Gatorade to bring myself back from the edge of dehydration. I rested for hours, then went back out and shot until the sun disappeared.
Can you tell us about Bruce Meyer and what it’s like to shooting his famous car collection? Of his cars that you’ve shot, what was your favorite?
Bruce is a true ambassador. His energy level and kind spirit make him stand out wherever he goes. I feel very fortunate that he has taken notice of my work and become a friend. I had the pleasure of shooting him in his garage years ago and it was there that I begin to understand the depth of his passion. I couldn’t begin to single out any car as a favorite in his collection, but I do hope to take a spin with him in one of his Hot Rods one day.
Favorite photographers of all-time?
I’m a big fan of the early works of Paul Strand, Edward Steichen and Alfred Steiglitz who helped establish photography as an art form in the 20th century. Edward Weston and Dorothea Lang’s work is captivating.
And although Mapplethorpe is known for such controversy, the book SOME WOMEN is a treasure. With each artist the understanding of composition and ability to capture the inner monologue of the subjects is inspiring. But overall, their understanding of light is breathtaking.
So, would you say that your understanding of light and composition came naturally, or trial and error?
The first step to creating a great image is to create a lot of bad ones. You need to go through the process. You need to understand why one image is better than another. You need to learn to see. I needed to walk through the fire.
Capturing the moment – how do you know where you need to be for a shot?
Your eye will take you there. There is no right or wrong place, just a different place. Sometimes you need a little luck.
From your experience, have your best shots come from perfect planning or “perfect” accidents?
I like to start a shoot with a pencil and a blank sheet of paper. Create a storyboard of how you see the day unfolding.
It’s an exercise, a starting place. Not always where you end up but a great place to start. Perfect accidents happen all the time. The most important part is showing up.
Your idea of the perfect composition?
An image becomes art through composition. Just like a painting, a sculpture an architectural masterpiece or a good book. You must start somewhere, go on a journey and be allowed to return and resolve.
What’s been the most challenging shoot you’ve ever done?
Every shoot has it’s challenges, but time is my biggest challenge. Racing against time, light, weather, logistics can be the greatest pressure.
For the book I recently flew from SFO to Denver and then to Nashville to photograph Keith Urban. When I arrived on location I was told I would have 20 minutes with him. Try that one on for size!!!!
At the end of the shoot I looked at my watch and realized an hour and 45 minutes had gone by. It made me smile.
With that kind of pressure, how do you work with a subject so that they feel comfortable to the point you can get a good session from him/her?
It’s about being in control and being prepared. Often when someone gives you that small of a window they are giving themselves an out. If they can tell you know what you’re doing, suddenly the guard goes down. The minute they sense insecurity they are done with you. These people are pros and they can tell if you’re not. It all goes back to that pencil sketch. Be on top of your game. When an established artist asks you what you want to do, you better have an answer.
If you could shoot any event in the world – what would it be?
I’ve never shot Formula 1. I would imagine the challenge to be exhilarating.
Your favorite gear set-up?
I’m a Canon guy. They have never let me down. Tripod? It has to be a Gitzo!
You have 30 seconds to leave for a shoot – and can only bring one camera and lens — what would that be?
That’s not fair!! Of course that always depends on what it is you’re shooting. But I’d grab a 1D Mark IV and a 24-70 2.8.
What do you like to do when you’re not shooting?
I love good music, good food, good wine and great conversation. I like to find creativity that inspires me. Just like a great image, I love finding things that make me stop and take it in. I can find it in a craftsmen, a baker, a cook…it’s all out there. You just have to keep looking for it.
How do you want to be perceived as a photographer?
I’d rather be perceived as an artist.
What’s next for you?
Not sure, but I’m ready.
+ Source: Michael Alan Ross Photography